- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Pitt running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, decided to transfer, it changed the face of Pitt’s offense this spring. With offensive linemen shuffling around, and an ongoing quarterback competition, Shell was one of the few answers the offense had. Now? Junior Isaac Bennett and sophomore Malcolm Crockett emerged as the front-runners to take his place, but both fumbled the ball in the spring game and still have something to prove. Bennett returns with the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 average). I spoke with him this spring about the competition at running back and the outlook for the offense. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
What is your new role like and how have you adjusted to it?
Isaac Bennett: To me, I haven’t taken a different approach. Every play, like coach says, just focus on what you have to do for a certain play and just go with the flow.
From what I’ve been told you had a terrific spring last year. How did things play out according to your expectations at this time last season?
IB: Ray [Graham] was hurt last spring, so I was with the first string. I didn’t know he’d come back and start, but all I could do was worry about focusing on what I can do, just taking it day by day and play by play, really not worrying too much about the other things, because everything will fall into place if you focus on the little things.
How much pride do you take in establishing the running game, considering how many questions there are surrounding it now? Do you feel any sense of, ‘We got it. Let’s prove we got it.’
IB: Oh yeah. The line, they’ve come a long way. We’re all coming together. Every team wants a good running game. We’ve got a backfield full of good players. We want to get that running game established so we can get the passing game established, vice versa.
Yeah, I would imagine that’s even more important with a new quarterback.
IB: Yeah, Tom [Savage], he’s been having a great spring. I’m eager to see what he’s going to do.
What about in terms of your own personal goals? Have you set anything number-wise?
IB: We all have our personal goals. You have to aim high. Mine would be at least 100 yards a game, at least.
How ready do you feel?
IB: I feel ready. The more repetition you get the more comfortable I feel. We’ve studied a lot, and the summer is coming up, so less class and more filmwork. I feel ready.
Do you guys have a greater sense of urgency because you know you’re opening with Florida State?
IB: Yes, and just from our previous record in the Big East, moving into a new conference, we want to show that we can hang with the best.
Well, I’ve been covering the ACC for a while and I can tell you upsets are possible. What are you looking forward to most about playing in a new conference this year?
IB: Just new teams, going different places. Something different.
What do the rest of the running backs look like and how much competition are you feeling, or do you feel like you’ve received an automatic promotion?
IB: Well, like Coach told me, straight up, everybody has a chance. He hasn’t given me the starting job. It’s whoever earns it. The whole running back group, we’re all really talented. We just have to keep pushing each other. At the end of the day, it’s about getting the win.
What went through your mind when you heard that Rushel was going to transfer? Did he talk to you about it at all?
IB: I really didn’t hear about it too much until after it happened. I kind of think he made a fast decision, but I just wish the best for him. That’s my friend. I look at him somewhat as a little brother. I know he’ll do well wherever he’s at.
Is this an opportunity in which you feel your patience has finally paid off?
IB: Just being out there on the field so people back home can see you out there. I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s not really small, but our group is small. You want to be a role model for kids. Back home, kids watch you. When you’re playing Division I, it’s a big deal, but you don’t really see it as a big deal until you go home and people want you to speak. Having them see me on the field, I want to give them hope you can move out, you can go far away from home.
What do you think you guys need to do to play consistently the way you did against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame last year?
IB: Just a mindset. We’ve got to go out and compete every time. You can’t go off the previous game. We have to stay focused on the game at hand.
How good do you think the offense can be? What do you think your potential is, and what do you need to do this summer to reach it?
IB: We can go as far as we want to go. There are a lot of great players. Every position is filled with great players, three deep. We’re just ready to get out there and compete. As far as the summer goes, everybody just has to have the mentality to get better every day. I think everybody has the mentality to get better every day. Somebody might want to slip up every once in a while -- we’re all human -- so you just have to encourage your teammates to push through it.
4dDan Murphy and Austin Ward